Okune, Angela. 2018. "STS in Africa: Micro." In PhD Orals Document: Querying Science and Technology Studies in Africa, created by Angela Okune. PhD Orals Document. UC Irvine Anthropology. October.
This essay answers the analytic question: “What did the analyst choose to describe as “science” and/or “data” in Africa?” Even within just the annotated set, STS scholarship in/on/about the continent spans a wide range of contexts and epistemic communities of scientists (for more on the diversity of projects, see this exhibit). While some scholars working on science and tech in Africa continue to study “elites” working in labs (e.g. Pollock 2014), others are explicit about their move to study those making science outside of the laboratory environment (e.g. Biruk 2018). Mavhunga studies things that “few would consider technological,” while Tilley conducted a historical inquiry of studies about British colonial Africa. Other “sciences” studied included: African medicinal plant knowledges (Osseo-Asare 2014) and negotiations over their intellectual property (Foster 2017); "big science” (Okeke 2016) and diagnostic science in African hospital laboratories (Okeke 2011); transnational collaboration in HIV medicine in Uganda and the US (Crane 2010); the science of biometric identification and registration systems (Breckenridge 2014); pre-paid electricity and water devices in South African townships (Von Schnitzler 2013); and the socio-material practices of prototyping, making and innovating within engineering and hardware projects in Nairobi's makerspaces (Coban 2018). An emergent body of work looks at the performance and production of data in African contexts (Biruk 2018; Tichenor 2017; Bezuidenhout et al. 2017).
This essay is part of a broader orals document by Angela Okune querying Science and Technology Studies in Africa. Sub-essays within the orals document can be accessed directly through the following links: Discursive Risk; Deutero; Meta; Macro; Micro; Nano; Techno; Data; Eco.
Bernal, Victoria. 2014. Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Citizenship . University of Chicago Press.
Bezuidenhout, Louise, Ann H. Kelly, Sabina Leonelli, and Brian Rappert. 2017. “‘$100 Is Not Much To You’: Open Science and Neglected Accessibilities for Scientific...Read more
Even within just the annotated set, STS scholarship in/on/about the continent spans a wide range of contexts and epistemic communities of scientists (for more on the diversity of projects, see this exhibit). While some scholars working on science and tech in Africa continue to study “elites” working in labs (e.g. Pollock 2014), others are explicit about their move to study those making science outside of the laboratory environment. For example, Biruk (2018)'s work is explicitly situated within the "field." Mavhunga studies things that “few would consider technological,” focusing on telling a history of African technologies—and not just technology in Africa—arguing that "science" (and "technology") can be found in the everyday lives of Africans and do not necessarily only entail those objects and epistemologies that emerged from the West. In his 2014 book, he looked at the professoriate of the hunt in Zimbabwe; in his most recent book (2018), he looks at local knowledge about the tsetse fly.
Noting again the field’s tension between normative use of and critiques of the notion of “indigenous knowledge,” in her historical inquiry of studies about British colonial Africa, Tilley (2011) concluded that terms like "colonial science" and even "indigenous knowledge" are untenable given the changing and porous boundaries that have existed between science and non-science during rapid and extended moments of cross-cultural interpenetration. She argued: “there is no singular knowledge system that can be grouped under the label ‘science’ and … within the myriad sciences there are often competing and incommensurable epistemologies” (2011: 117). Osseo-Asare (2014) chose to study six African medicinal plants and the ways in which the plants and knowledge about them changed and traveled, noting the knowledges were not usually geographically bounded, contrary to popular imaginaries of Indigenous Knowledge. Green (2012), who looked at South Africa’s version of the science wars, noted that where the IK vs Science debate categorizes the knowledges as different before the parties have even spoken a word to each other, there is little chance of discovering linkages and partial connections that might begin a new conversation.
Foster (2017) focused on the negotiations over intellectual property of the Hoodia plant and problematized patent law and its dichotomous assumptions of nature/culture, modern/nonmodern, and Western/indigenous. Okeke (2016) looked at "big science" especially in the context of genomic data and diagnostic science in African hospital laboratories (2011). Green has advocated for "slow science" (citing Stengers). Crane (2010) studied transnational collaboration in HIV medicine in Uganda and the US. Breckenridge (2014) looked at the science of biometric identification and registration systems, describing biometrics as the “identification of people by machines” (12).
Von Schnitzler (2013) looked at the micro techno-politics related to pre-paid electricity and water devices in townships in South Africa noting a seemingly ongoing cycle of innovation and subversion as residents break or rewire the devices (to get free access to the utilities) and engineers devise new ways to get them back on the normative (paying) grid. While this seems largely unrelated to technology development in Kenya which is primarily focused on the mobile phone, it is interesting to think about how for example Coban (2018)'s work looking at the socio-material practices of prototyping, making and innovating within engineering and hardware projects in Nairobi's makerspaces could be reframed to think about contestations between tech developers and their funders or perhaps even the tech users and the tech developers. Could an analysis of the technologies themselves (some of which, as examples, are described in this recent National Geographic article) reveal some of the micro-politics between the different groups?
I find my work most closely aligning with Biruk, Tichenor and Bezuidenhout who look at the performance and production of data in African contexts. However, all three focus largely on quantitative data whereas I am most interested in the sharing of qualitative data. They also largely focus on production of data while I am most interested in the sharing of data (that has already been collected/produced). It is important to note that even within these three scholars' work, they hold varying definitions and ideas of what counts or constitutes as "data." Bezuidenhout particularly holds a broad notion of what counts as data and data activities, including online access of scholarly papers.